Tuesday, 21. July 2015 17:54 | Author:admin
Idols shouldn’t be touched, the gilt comes off on your hands. Flaubert
Perhaps it has always been the case, but (as in so many other things) the constant information buzz of the Internet exacerbates it. However, there is no disguising the fact that there is an open season on heroes. Through revelation, changing perceptions, or new actions, the men and women who indirectly formed us are seen to be fallible, reckless, and in some cases covertly monstrous. The landscape of the statuary is cluttered with fallen marbles.
This is not to defend fallen heroes, or even the concept of heroism. I have joined in the collective disgust over revelations about the peccadilloes and crimes of role models, and I have gloated over the exposure of self-appointed moral arbiters. Schadenfreude is the life-blood of the Internet. Likewise, I have wondered about the human need to lift some above the others, leaving us open for disillusionment when humanity (or worse) shows through.
However, I will defend a cultural role model who is currently suffering from public reevaluation based on new revelations. This universally popular figure was respected and admired for generations and gave us all an icon of manhood, of fatherhood, to which we all could aspire. However, newly discovered information threatens to tar him and knock him from the pantheon of great fathers.
This man is Atticus Finch.
With the release of Harper Lee’s “new” novel Go Set a Watchman, the literary world and much of popular culture were set aflame. The novel addresses the character of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, in her adult years, long after the childhood events of the first book. Among the major revelations of this new chapter are (Spoiler Alert) the death of her brother Jem in early adulthood and most challenging of all, the “true” character of Atticus as a bitter segregationalist, fighting against the principles he espoused in Mockingbird and even attending a Klan rally.
The pain that screamed across social media at this was deafening. Adults who grew up with Atticus, whether on the page or so perfectly captured by Gregory Peck, expressed anger, outrage, and most profoundly sadness, a reaction compounded by recent debates over vestiges of the Old South. There are laments about the loss of a hero and the father we wish we had. Some have taken the opportunity to express that Atticus never was the role model of racial progressiveness that he seemed, demonstrating paternalism over true empathy. I’ve even seen the comment that To Kill a Mockingbird should be dropped from school curriculum based on these newly-revealed “truths.”
While understandable, this reaction ignores several essential differences between a character in a novel and a flesh and blood human being (even a celebrity). There is no evidence that Go Set an Watchman was ever intended as a sequel to TKAM. The book was written before, and for all intents abandoned to tell the new story (whether Lee or Capote wrote the final story is debatable). Therefore there is no call for this to be a consistent universe or that these characters have anything more than a shadow relationship to their final selves. Given the history of the two books, there is no indication of Lee’s intention to use Watchman to tell the truth behind the book she wrote second. Atticus is not Katniss Everdeen, or Jon Snow. He is a character created one way in one book and another way in another book. Atticus’ views in the second novel reflect no more on his actions in the first than Jem’s death of a heart attack reflects on the calorie rich meals he ate as a child.
So I will remain devoted to Atticus, the man taking a principled stance knowing he would not win, the caring and understanding father, the point of light in a blind community. Though simplistically drawn (a friend always refers to TKAM as YA lit), he is a great existential hero. His actions and words show his character, and even if Harper Lee thought he would turn out differently, there is no reason why I, or anyone, have to believe her. It is clear to me that Lee never intended to put out Watchman, the details of its eventual publication are controversial, so this is not a story she thought it important to tell. The beauty of a literary figure is that our admiration does not have to be affected by anything outside of the work itself. There is no TMZ for our literary heroes.
As always, I welcome your comments.